Is it the second coming of 1888? Is it radical Christo-centrism birthing a bold, new prophetic Adventism? Is it spiritual snack food—a feel-good Jesus—doled out like cookies for the all-too-comfortable?
Such questions invite the one activity that the One Project—a pastor-led initiative to make Jesus the center of Adventist consciousness—seems bound to stimulate. That activity is conversation among the troubled, hopeful people who bring thought to their experience in Adventism.
More than 700 such people came together for the One Project’s 2014 “gathering” last Monday and Tuesday in a downtown Seattle hotel. Similar gatherings—two in Australia, one each in Brazil, The Netherlands, and New Zealand, along with a Spanish only conference at La Sierra University—will occur later this year. Given such energy and widening reach, the One Project will certainly continue, at least in the short run, to generate, and perhaps even to shape, the ongoing Adventist conversation.
The One Project mantra is “Jesus. All.”—or, as said repeatedly from the ballroom stage, “Jesus…full-stop. All…full-stop.” In that spirit, and in Monday’s first talk, Bill Knott, editor of the Adventist Review, cited Paul’s point, from Colossians 1, that Jesus is the “image of the invisible God.” The implication was that the Bible takes readers to a culmination—in a word, to Jesus. The specific story he focused on was that of the risen Jesus talking and walking with two struggling followers on the way to Emmaus. This picture of conversation led Knott to propose the ideal of “dialogical Adventism.” “Beware of those who think Adventism is unanimity,” he declared, saying further that the Adventist Movement “is either about a conversation and a journey, or it has lost its way.”
Alex Bryan, who is returning to the pastorate of the Walla Walla University Church and is, along with Boulder, Colorado pastor Japhet De Oliveira, co-chair of the One Project board, turned then to eschatology. Reflecting on the signature Adventist passage of Revelation 14:6-12—it speaks of the “mark of the beast” as well as of the “faith of Jesus”—Bryan said that our interpretation may lead to “paranoia” or “paralysis” or “parousia.” This last, and it alone, is authentically desirable, an experience, he said, of the presence of Jesus. Later on on the first day Sam Leonor, chaplain at La Sierra University, returned to the theme of eschatology. End-time charts don’t fit with Jesus’ insistence, in Acts 1:7, that we cannot “know the times or periods.” An eschatology shaped by Jesus, he said, convicts true followers to live—today—as the saved will live in the world made new, redeemed from indifference, oppression and hate.
Three talks addressed the relationship between Jesus and the Bible. Randy Roberts, senior pastor of the Loma Linda University Church, noted the tendency of religious movements to diminish into sclerotic bureaucracies, then argued from John 16 that Jesus is the criterion for ever-deeper insight that the Spirit continues to provide. In the Bible itself, as in Christian communities today, misunderstandings appear. But even if no community has the truth, God does move people—“as we are able”—toward profounder understanding. And the person who “‘rejects the New,’” Roberts remarked, invoking Ellen White, “‘does not really possess the Old.’” David Franklin, who appears on the Hope Channel’s “Let’s Pray,” said that the “same” Jesus appears in both Testaments of Scripture. “He is not an apex,” Franklin went on, thus seeming to contradict both Roberts and Mark Witas, who spoke the next morning. Witas, now pastor of the Pacific Union College Church, advanced the claim that Jesus is the transcript of God’s character. Citing Old Testament calls to genocide, and comparing Luke 9:55, 56 with the Genesis account of Sodom and Gomorrah, he said: “Jesus came to redefine the Father.”
Three women addressed the conference. Monday afternoon Dilys Brooks, a chaplain at Loma Linda University, spoke of Christian integrity, or “credible witness.” She cited Gandhi—“My life is my message”—and called attention to Job’s integrity “through pain” and David’s ability to “own” his own mistakes, God helping all the while. Tuesday morning Susan Zork, a religion teacher at Andrews University, looked to Mark 2 and Sabbath healing stories in the Gospels to back her contention that Sabbath is a day for humanity, a day for good deeds on behalf of others. Tuesday afternoon Jaci Perrin, a hospice chaplain in the Boise area, argued that Christian compassion is best communicated through “solidarity.” Citing the biblical languages, she said compassion is “wombishness”; it is like a good mother’s capacity to feel with her child, and to be present when need beckons. As God enters into solidarity with human experience, so must those who follow God. The “printed truth” is not enough; the call of Christ is a call to self-giving humanity and service.
Tuesday morning Tim Gillespie, the “Faith Community and Health Liaison” for Loma Linda University Medical Center, echoed the Adventist Review editor’s dream for a “dialogical Adventism.” Ellen White “said such good stuff because she read so much,” he declared, contending that Adventists cannot find “present truth” for today without “safe” conversation both inside the community and outside of it—with people of other faith traditions. Late Tuesday afternoon, Karl Haffner, senior pastor of the Kettering Adventist Church in Ohio, appealed both to the “I am the vine” metaphor in John 15 and to the lifework of Adventist preacher Morris Venden. Underscoring the urgency of a disciplined, “personal” relationship with Jesus, he meant to prepare listeners for the sharing of the bread and wine, over which he presided as the One Project drew its 2014 gathering to a close.
Throughout the two-day meeting, attendees sat at tables where facilitators presided over conversations following every talk. Minute-long opportunities for dream-sharing—two microphones stood at the ready—followed the conversations. Mornings and afternoons participants stood to their feet for the singing of Gospel and contemporary Christian songs.
One of the gathering’s persistent themes was that of the story. God’s dealings with humanity constitute a narrative that moves toward a climax; they have a direction, a trajectory. On Tuesday morning guest speaker Leonard Sweet, from George Fox University, noted that both the Amish, who retain their children well, and Jews, who make outsized contributions to society’s well-being, build their children’s identity around a story much repeated, most often at the dinner table. Instead of what he impishly called “versitis,” there is story-telling, with children encouraged to imagine themselves in the goings-on.
For members of a church struggling to retain its youth, the point suggested that it may be time, as One Project leaders say, to “recalibrate.” If Adventist mission comes down, as some insist, to a “warning message” based on inside information, does it really address the whole person? If the church asked members to immerse themselves in a narrative of solidarity and human betterment—with a beginning, a direction and a culmination—would it be more likely to engage youthful imagination?
Everyone at the Seattle meeting received a book of sermons and essays entitled For the One: Voices from The One Project. In her essay One Project board member Lisa Clark Diller, from the history faculty of Southern Adventist University, writes that Adventists “stand in a tradition whose founding moment was a confession that Jesus was true and faithful,” even though the founders themselves “were broken and confused.” This point, One Project leaders declare, is crucial for Adventism. Taken seriously, it could inject honest humanity as well as driving hope into the story that shapes the church’s identity.
And it could invite redemptive self-criticism even for leaders of the One Project. So far, the initiative seems relatively uninterested, for example, in the Hebrew prophets. No speaker in Seattle attended in depth to what any of them had to say. Adventists continue, it seems, to be bored—or threatened—by these voices of social and political engagement.
But Jesus wasn’t bored or threatened by their words. Nor were the Adventist pioneers. This is one thing, but not a small thing. It belongs to any story that would truly and deeply engage the whole imagination of people who intend, despite their brokenness and by God’s grace, to hold fast to the whole faith of Jesus.